LOUIS ABELMAN

Archive for October, 2004

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Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba never showed up. I learned from Carole, our Swahili tutor, that his aspirations for the scheduled presidential election in 2005 are compromised by the fact that many in the population believe that he has eaten the flesh of a pygmy for medicinal purposes. Certainly it costs him the pygmy vote.

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October 30th, 2004 at 12:05 pm

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V.I.P.s

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Today the DOCS compound is full of Congolese Army regulars who are providing a security cordon for the visit of one of Congo’s four vice presidents. We are here to film more surgeries, but are trying to film the V.P. as well, as he is visiting the rape victims– it would be a good thing to have in our documentary. The permission to do so rests with the men with guns, however, as always. We have been having some tricky run-ins with officialdom for our visas and filming permits, and the objective is not to let yourself get extorted any more that is absolutely necessary.

Only soldiers smoke cigarettes here, and they always bum them off me. These guys look great with their green berets, long knives and modified AKs, but they all have facial tics when you talk to them (you wonder what they have seen and done). The policemen here look even better as their uniforms are purple and yellow (Lakers?).

A detachment of Bangladeshi U.N. soldiers just drove up in an ambulance and I shook the hand of their captain, who inquired after my health. It’s the first time that any UN people have been less than totally rude to me. Bad car wreck came in as well. Busy day.

We filmed Devon’s school yesterday and got a healthy dose of politics, as the administrators were feuding and all the teachers we interviewed used the time to demand salary increases. It reminded me of a public school in America, except it was a wooden shack on a wasteland of lava. The kids put on some great skits for us.

The moon is full, the Red Sox won, and I am exercising regularly. Some devil’s magic is afoot in the world!

Congolese Question of the Day: Mister, who is richer, Michael Jackson or Kenny Rogers?

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October 29th, 2004 at 9:05 am

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Mzuuunguuuu!!!

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We are settling into a nice lifestyle here.

This morning, for example, we jogged from Maji Matulivu (still waters, Jo and Lyn’s house) with our tennis rackets at 6:30 am to the Hotel Karibu, about a mile and a half. The jog is along a nice little lane with flowering trees and views of the lake on one side and the volcano on the other. Each way we pass an old property of Mobutu’s, including the lion trailer where he kept his pet lion, and the compounds of other grandees including the area’s governor, UNHCR, and the heads of the RDC, the political party in control of North Kivu. If we go early enough the air is clear, but later diesel SUVs from various NGO’s make breathing a little difficult. Everyone we pass looks at us like we’re insane, but the soldiers guarding various entrances seem particulary bemused. My favorite part is running by a house where a starled four-year old always shouts MZUUUNGU! (white man in Swahili) and starts running after us. Today we had a whole pack of barefoot boys running after us asking for biscuits (the NGO’s often give out high calorie snacks to kids). When you’re running along with a tennis racket the whole scene makes you feel like a preppy psychopath.

I suck at tennis, but Teo, a pro at the Hotel (clay courts!) is giving me lessons.

We have a jeep here, a blue Pajero with “orthopedic and tramautological surgery” painted on the side. Driving around Goma is crazy. Most of Goma was destroyed by the volcano two years ago, and most of the roads excepting the main drag are actually just raw lava floes. Tough on the suspension. Lava rocks cover everything and they are black and jagged. Watching the little kids run around barefoot makes you wince. But Goma is still pretty big, with about 600,000 people, and it is absolutley hectic with traffic, hawkers, barber shops, cell phone shops and shoe markets. The buildings are low, made of concrete or planks of wood, and all the shop signs are hand painted. BJ wants to have a coffee table book of just the signage– hulk hogan, rambo, 50 cent, Craig David (??), hulk hogan fighting Craig David. Everyone stares, waves, laughs… if there’s one Swahili word I’ll never forget, it’s “Mzungu.”

The dutchmen have left. All brothers, they were inspirational… they’ve been running a small foundation in Congo for twenty years and go everywhere, to the smalllest villages, just fixing things, buying property for people, importing equipment. They were a bit paternalistic but seem to have adjusted to Congolese rythyms over the years.

We’ve visited Mama Jeanne’s orphanage (600 kids) and Devon’s school. Every day going back to Maji Matulivu is like hopping worlds, economies. Poverty is awe-inspiring, finally, when its scope is so extensive, and people’s resilience in the face of horrible suffering is admirable, yes, but also terrifying. It is totally alien. I can only watch, listen, but I can’t feel it.

The volcano, which looms over the plain where Goma sits beside the lake, glows a molten red at night.

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October 25th, 2004 at 11:22 am

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"Please Don’t Eat Gorilla"

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Title of a song I heard yesterday… I love that song.

So today was a baptism of sorts as we began filming surgeries. I held up okay. Nelson passed out for a second, but it was from camera strain, not horror. I love the way doctors talk in surgery– so urbane.

We may have settled our plans for projects. 1) is a promotional video for DOCS to take around to the donators abroad. 2) is to shoot some episodes of “Chagua Maisha,” Choose Life, which is a sitcom about dealing with AIDS. 3), and this is the big one, is a documentary on women and war, focusing on rape victims and their recovery process. Here they are specializing in fistula operations, or vaginal repairs, which now make up 80 percent of their cases. Then they have a whole psychological unit as well. It’s amazing, amazing what they do with what they’ve got. But they have more than I thought. Then again, I’m not a doctor. But I look like one in scrubs.

That’s already a lot… but we want to 5) film a number of procedures to leave a video library for instruction (as med students can’t get cadavers here, ironically enough, due to refrigeration problems). 6) is a short promotional video about the school that BJ’s friend Lyn founded here.

So we should be busy. I’m trying to figure out what I can cover in an article, and I’ve met Horeb, who could be my “fixer,” which is the proverbial go-to guy for a journalist who gets you to stories and tells you where to buy your special passes and what to say to officials… ha, do I sound like I know what I’m doing? I don’t.

I will marry my bride, when I find her, on the slopes of Mt. Nyiragongo (note I mispelled it in the last post).

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October 22nd, 2004 at 11:16 am

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Karibu, welcome to Goma

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We are in Goma, where it is the year 2004. Call us here at 243 0 81 73 74 305, my french cell phone which I fixed up to work here. Maybe leave off the first 0, and I’m sure it will be very expensive.

Here in Goma, Congo, the one thing everyone is talking about is Red Sox, Red Sox, Red Sox! Sadly, no, but people are talking about the american election. Everyone loves George Bush because the Democrats are seen as supporters of Rwanda.

We got here after driving from Kigali, through the northwestern part of the country and its thousand hills. Every foot of the red earth is cultivated in small plots, creeping up the steepest slope where you couldn’t imagine anyone would be able to swing a hoe. There was less forest cover that I expected. As we approached Congo the volcanoes appeared. They are massive, imposing, active and darken at the upper slopes which disappear into cloud. Nyirango, which destroyed Goma a couple of years ago, is not due to erupt for awhile, and we want to go hike it.

It was quite a trip. Saw my first grenade launcher. Rwandan soldiers are non-threatening and somewhat professional, unlike their counterparts here. But we have fixers and guides and nothing is a problem. People here at DOCS are amazing.

We are lucky to have incredibly luxurious accomadations at Lyn And Jo’s. It’s just us and some Dutch engineers and the kivu lakefront… Goma bears heavy scars but seems calm, and business is back. Four competing cell phone companies. We’ve been touring around, meeting people from NGO’s and talking about the projects we are going to do for DOCS. My french has been very useful, but many people here speak four languages or more, French, Swahili, Lingala, Kinyarwanda… hoping to work on the Swahili as it seems extremely useful.

It’s been a long two days, and we have a lot of work to do…

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October 21st, 2004 at 1:20 pm

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Arrival

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I have arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, after a perfectly prosaic flight, interrupted only by the supernatural shrieks of a man being deported back to Rwanda from Brussels very much against his will. We flew in an arc that straddled the Adriatic, the Aegean, skirted the nilotic plains of Egypt and unremarkably overflew bleeding Darfur. As we passed the equator the light grew unmistakably murky through tropical clouds. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban played on and I read about John Kerry in the New Yorker. We touched down; mid-seventies, the air smells of wood burning. Israel Jacob, the driver for DOCS, patiently escorted us to the Hotel Okapi. A pint of Primus, the national beer, a filet of Kivu lake fish, the internet and then bed, it seems. BJ has lost his suitcase in transit.

I didn’t mention the third member of our team: Nelson Walker, who some of you may know. He remembered to bring Cipro. No one brought sunscreen.

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October 19th, 2004 at 8:51 pm

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Update

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There has been progress in my search for a bride. On the eve of my departure, I have come across this sighting of her. Baby, I’m a comin’!

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October 18th, 2004 at 3:29 pm

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